Thursday, May 16, 2013

Review: Mud (2013)

Mud (2013)

Mud is a phenomenal coming-of-age drama and one of the best films of 2013, making it that much more of a surprise that this is being released at the start of the summer movie season rather than in the late fall when dark films like this tend to thrive. I'm certainly not complaining, though, since this is certainly a welcome change of pace from the action and spectacle that have been dominating theaters for the last couple of months. Its characters are well-acted and riveting even with (or perhaps because of) their deep flaws, the story is filled with intriguing twists and turns, and the rural South truly comes to life on screen. Here's hoping that more studios take note and release more films like this throughout the year instead of stacking them in Oscar season.

Mud is the story of two teenage boys, Ellis (Tye Sheridan) and Neckbone (Jacob Lofland), in small-town Arkansas who discover, deep in the woods, an abandoned boat that had been left in the trees by the last flood. They also meet its current resident, a drifter who calls himself Mud (Matthew McConaughey) who wants to reconnect with his girlfriend Juniper (Reese Witherspoon) and sail away to the Gulf on that boat. However, not all is as it seems with Mr. Mud -- he had killed a man in Texas for abusing Juniper, and his family has sent the bounty hunter Carver (Paul Sparks) after him. The boys are forced to turn to Tom Blankenship (Sam Shepard), the closest thing Mud has to a father figure, for help. Meanwhile, Ellis' parents Senior (Ray McKinnon) and Mary Lee (Sarah Paulson) are going through a bitter divorce that will cause Senior to lose his home, while he seeks to fall in love with a girl in school named May Pearl (Bonnie Sturdivant).

Writer/director Jeff Nichols was inspired by Mark Twain, writer of one of the great coming-of-age stories, The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, and it shows here. Much like Twain, Nichols has crafted a gripping Southern adventure story that is heartfelt without being schmaltzy, tense without being over-the-top. Nichols grew up in this part of the country, and he, having grown up there, captures the reality of what it is like. I may never have been to Arkansas, but in mainland Florida where I go to school and work and in northwestern New Jersey where my dad used to live, I have gone down enough highways covered in Cracker Barrels, Piggly Wigglys, and tractor repair shops to know that environment. The two boys cast as the young leads, Tye Sheridan and Jacob Lofland, were both genuine Southern boys, and it shows in their performances, where they feel right at home riding dirt bikes and driving small boats. The bigger actors too all convinced me that they were genuine good ol' boys and girls, with me only recognizing Matthew McConaughey (and that's because his name and face are on the poster). I was almost able to smell the river in this film. It is not romanticized or critiqued, it is just presented as it is.

The story built around this environment is just as gripping. While it is admittedly slow-moving, I barely had a problem with that, since this film takes that time to develop its characters and make them far more than just caricatures. The boys are not paragons of moral perfection, they are normal teenage boys who steal things for Mud and get into fights. Their parents aren't perfect either, Ellis' father in particular being a guy who means well but can't support himself, to the frustration of his (soon to be ex-)wife. Then there's Mud, a guy who refuses to get past his love Juniper even though, as Tom can readily see, their relationship is dragging them both down, with her being an unfaithful lover who gets into trouble and him being an obsessive lover who starts it. These characters grow, and not always in the most wholesome ways; when Ellis' relationship with May Pearl fails, his reaction to her new boyfriend shows how much Mud's corrupting influence has (no pun intended) rubbed off on him. While most of these characters' stories are wrapped up in a fairly agreeable manner, the journeys they take to those conclusions had me invested from start to finish.

Score: 5 out of 5

This is an incredible film that beautifully captures its rural setting while providing viewers with a moving and deeply involving story. Films like this don't often come along this time of year, so make every effort to check this out.

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